What is a Workhouse?

By Averil Staunton

Workhouses were introduced as part of the English Poor Law system in 1838 to Ireland to help relieve the suffering of the poor. The British Government believed it to be the most cost-effective way of tackling the desperate state of poverty in Ireland. Another reason was that it was likely to stop the flow of destitute Irish swamping England.
The cost of poor relief was met by the payment of rates (tax) by owners and occupiers of land and property in the district of Ballinrobe Union.
Of the 130 Unions in Ireland there were 5 in the Co. Mayo, Ballina, Ballinrobe, Castlebar, Swinford and Westport covering sprawling areas in each region, with people having to walk up to 30 miles to gain entry.

These Unions were overseen by a Board of Guardians who were drawn from people of perceived status such as landowners, businessmen or a substantial farmers. The Chairman and Vice-chairman were usually held by the largest landowners in the Union. Two-thirds of the Guardians were elected and one-third were ex-officio members with the Justices of the Peace or local magistrates taking most of those position.

Religions leaders, priests or ministers were not eligible to be elected and it was only rate-payers who were eligible to vote. This meant that the landless classes were ineligible to be represented with the landed classes being disproportionally represent on the Board.

The Board of Guardians were charged with the task of distributing relief to the completely destitute.

Workhouse Ballinrobe, Co Mayo – drawing by Averil Staunton


Course: Remembering our Heritage – Ballinrobe Workhouse

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